In this series, which emphasises some of the major strategic dangers related to the war against the Islamic State, we focused first on geographical risks resulting potentially from a narrow understanding of the Islamic State’s implantation and outreach. We thus moved from a Mesopotamian theatre of war  to a regional one (“From Syria to the Region“), then to the necessity to also incorporate all global operations of the Islamic State in the strategy, explaining how operations in one area could impact operations elsewhere as well as the overall war (“A Global Theatre of War“). We notably took as examples, beyond the obvious case of Libya, Somalia (“Facing a Strategic Trap in Somalia?“), Bangladesh, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia (“From the Philippines and Indonesia to Bangladesh“).

The strategic challenges presented by the war against the Islamic State and its Khilafah are not, however, limited to geography. They are also located in the sphere of ideas and beliefs. However much one may be opposed to an enemy’s beliefs – indeed as we are at war against this enemy – not considering them for what they are, nothing more, but also nothing less, is dangerous in itself. This is all the more so that, should the enemy be defeated only materially, the ideas it promoted are likely to survive, paving the way for the rise of another foe.

Islamic State, Sectarianism, Sunni-Shia, Shi'a, Shi'ite, War, Dabiq
Cover Page – Dabiq 13, Al-Hayat Media Center, 19 January 2016

Throughout the articles focusing on the geographical dimension of the Islamic State, we started pointing out a sectarian aspect – the antagonism between Sunnis and Shi’ites – present in the Islamic State’s psyops, with impact on actions, as for example in the case of Bangladesh (“From the Philippines…”). It is to this feature that we shall now turn, using notably the latest issue of the English language magazine of the Islamic State, Dabiq 13 (Al-Hayat, Media Center, 19 January 2016). First, we shall briefly review the part of Dabiq devoted to military operations, and see which further elements it brings regarding the worldwide character of the operations of the Islamic State and how these mix with sectarianism. Second, we shall establish that the Islamic State is indeed heightening with time its use of anti Shi’ite rhetoric. Finally, we shall turn to the content of this rhetoric as developed in Dabiq 13 and underline impacts and consequences as a deadly ideological quadrangle involving the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, Al-Qaeda and “all Shi’ites led by Iran” is created. We shall not here take any position on the content of the faiths.

Global and anti-Shi’ite Islamic State military operations

In Dabiq’s section “A selection of military operations conducted by the Islamic State” (pp.14-19), the military operations are presented chronologically and worldwide, across wilayats and countries. We thus move from Bengal to Wilāyat Hadramawt (Saudi Arabia) to Tunisia to Wilāyat West Ifrīqiyyah to Egypt to Wilāyat ‘Adan Abyan (in Yemen) to Wilāyat Dimashq (Damascus, Syria) to Wilāyat Halab (Aleppo, Syria), and later to Indonesia, Wilāyat Khurāsān, etc.

Islamic State, Sectarianism, Sunni-Shia, Shi'a, Shi'ite, War, Dabiq
Page relating military operations – Dabiq 13, Al-Hayat Media Center, 19 January 2016, p. 19

This approach thus confirms our previous analysis regarding the need to envision the Islamic State globally.

We should, however, note the conspicuous absence of mention of operations in Somalia and in the Philippines, although these took place (Ibid.). This absence may point out the lack of centralisation of the Islamic State – which most probably, as emphasised in previous articles, does not operate through a command and control approach – as well as a lack of information regarding these places for the team creating Dabiq. There is probably no reliable information network set up with these two areas – despite the initial call to Somalia notably (see “Facing a Strategic Trap in Somalia?“) – nor ability to get information through local media. The constant attacks and shelling most probably also contributed to degrade the information capabilities of the Islamic State. Finally, not forgetting that Dabiq is a psyops product and not a document of strategy, we must also consider that some information may be willingly withheld by the Islamic State to try protecting still fledgling and uncertain operations.

Meanwhile, sectarianism is also highlighted throughout the text presenting the military operations, emphasising the killing of Shi’ites for Bengal and Wilāyat West Ifrīqiyyah, and stressing that in Wilāyat al-Anbār and Wilāyat North Baghdad (Iraq), the Khilafah is portrayed as fighting “the Safawī army and its Rāfidī militias” (see below for more on the use of these words).

What is outlined here, unsurprisingly, is a global religious war, with a rising emphasis against Shi’ites as the most important enemy, when present in the areas where the war takes place.

A heightening use of anti-Shi’ite rhetoric

Before we turn to the content of the beliefs expressed by the Islamic State regarding Shi’a Islam, let us first establish that there is indeed a sectarian ideological focus for the Islamic State and try to measure its extent (for a backgrounder, see “The Sunni-Shi’a Divide“, Council of Foreign Relations, A CFR InfoGuide Presentation, August 2015 – note, however, that the CFR guide “forgets” the Indian Shi’ite population which was estimated, nonetheless, in 2009 by the Pew Research Center as reaching between 16 and 24 million people; India thus ranked third in terms of Shi’ite population after Iran and Pakistan). As indicator, we shall take the number of instances the words Rāfidah (plural), Rāfidī  (singular) or Rafidah, Rafidi – as the spelling varies – is utilised in the issues of Dabiq. These words are currently used to mean “broadly, Shīʿite Muslims who reject (rafḍ) the caliphate of Muḥammad’s two successors Abū Bakr and ʿUmar” and are perceived as insulting by Shi’ite Muslims (Encyclopaedia Britannica). We shall use all issues of Dabiq for our measurement because they are one of the Islamic State major psyops products and because the length of the series (thirteen issues) may help us see if a trend can be discerned.

The results obtained are very interesting, as shown below:

Instances of words mentioned Number of pages with words
Dabiq 1 – 5 July 2014 5 3
Dabiq 2 -27 July 2014 3 3
Dabiq 3 – 10 Sept 2014 0 0
Dabiq 4 – 11 Oct 2014 4 4
Dabiq 5 – 21 Nov 2014 8 3
Dabiq 6 – 29 Dec 2014 29 13
Dabiq 7 – 12 February 2015 5 3
Dabiq 8 – 30 March 2015 0 0
Dabiq 9 – 21 May 2015 51 16
Dabiq 10 – 13 July 2015 13 8
Dabiq 11 – 9 Sept 2015 60 19
Dabiq 12 – 18 Nov 2015 53 18
Dabiq 13 – 19 January 2016 216 24

We thus see that, although present from the start, but without then any emphasis, apart at the end of December 2014, there is a trend towards a strong increase in the focus on or rather against Shi’ites. We may surmise that, as the situation on the ground in Mesopotamia becomes increasingly difficult for the Islamic State – a consequence of military successes by various ground forces supported by airstrikes by a reinvigorated U.S.-led coalition and by Russia – the Khilafah heightens its anti-Shi’ite rhetoric as a way not only to mobilize, but also to reassert its legitimacy, fundamentally grounded in its religious role.

Let us turn to Dabiq #13 to understand better the content of the sectarian ideology of the Islamic State and the role it plays.

A deadly ideological quadrangle?

The escalating competitors: Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda

In the latest Dabiq, two long articles  are more particularly devoted to anti-Shi’ite rhetoric: “From the pages of history: the Safawiyyah” (pp.10-13)  and “The Rafidah: From Ibn Saba to Dajjal” (pp.32-45), while mention of “Rafidah” is also found in the “Interview with the Wālī of Khurāsān” (pp.48-54).

However, if we are to understand the Islamic State’s position regarding the rising use of anti-shi’ite rhetoric, we must start elsewhere, with the first article of Dabiq “Kill the Imams of Kufr” (pp.6-8), an article where the complete absence of any reference to Rāfidah is conspicuous. Here the Islamic State denounces the execution by Saudi Arabia on 2 January 2016 of 43 Al-Qaeda members, including Faris al-Zahrani (Al Jazeera, 3 January, RT, 11 Januray 2016). Meanwhile, Dabiq is completely silent on the execution, in the same time, of three Shi’ites, including Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, which triggered the latest episode of heightening of tensions between Iran, and Saudi Arabia first, before strain extended to other Sunnis states (e.g. Morgan Winsor, International Business Times, 7 Jan 2016).

Islamic State, Sectarianism, Sunni-Shia, Shi'a, Shi'ite, War,
Still from a video by The Islamic State – Wilāyat Nīnawā, 23 Dec 2015

Through this article, first, not only does the Islamic State seek to attack the Saudi government and regime, but it also attempts to undermine the very Saudi legitimacy by declaring all Saudi religious scholars apostate (murtaddīn), which is momentous for a religious state such as Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, we must also consider “Saudi Arabia’s Soft Power” (Gallarotti G., Al-Filali, 2012), as “leader of the Sunni world”, exemplified again by the creation on 15 December 2015 of the “Islamic military alliance to fight terrorism”, “led by [the] Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, which operation center should be based in Riyadh (see official statement; BBC News, 15 Dec 2015), after the lead taken in the war in Yemen. The article in Dabiq most probably also seeks to discredit any such claim to leadership by Saudi Arabia, which may only be perceived as a direct threat to the Islamic State and its Khilafah – there can be only one leader and only one Khilafah. For the Islamic State and its Khilafah, the danger is only greater because of the close religious proximity between the Saudi (Blanchard, “The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya“, CRS, 2008) and Islamic State doctrines, as specified in Dabiq p. 7. To try to assert its supremacy and thus its legitimate right and obligation to declare and sustain a Khilafah (see a detailed explanation in “Worlds War“, part: The Islamic State and the Khilafah), the Islamic State must thus take any opportunity to show a difference between the two religious creeds and practice, including through ideological escalation.

Islamic State, Sectarianism, Sunni-Shia, Shi'a, Shi'ite, War,
Picture – Dabiq 13, Al-Hayat Media Center, 19 January 2016, p. 41

Thus, because of the Saudi religious stand and status and because it had also executed Shi’ites, and not only Sunnis terrorists, which enhanced, if seen through the sectarian prism, their claim to a Sunni leadership, the Islamic State had to counter through both discourse and deeds this aspect in a race for supremacy and rule over a specific Sunni Islam. They had even more to counter it that in al-Baghdadi’s 26 December 2015 audio message, “And wait, for we are also waiting” (Pietervanostaeyen), one of their arguments to delegitimize the Saudi-led Islamic coalition was that it had not “declared enmity and war against the pagan Rāfidah” (p.3). The Islamic State had thus to show both the illegitimacy of Saudi Arabia and prove further its own legitimacy through intensifying its own anti-Shi’ite position, as done in the remaining part of Dabiq.

Second, the Saudi executions were similarly denounced by Al-Qaeda’s leadership (e.g. RT, 11 Jan 2016; Dabiq 13, p.8) when Al Qaeda is another major ideological competitor for the Islamic State (see “Worlds War“). Thus, by attacking rhetorically the Saudi Imams, when Al Qaeda does not, the Islamic State shows it is truer to Islam, or rather to its understanding of Islam and thus more legitimate. We have here an ideological reasoning similar to the one used for Saudi Arabia, while the pattern is as escalating as it concludes:

“The jihād claimants [adh-Dhawāhirī *] don’t seem to realize that the only response to the shedding of Muslim blood is massacring the apostate murderers and all those who aid them – especially their loyal “scholars.” Dabiq 13, p.8

From the point of view of the Islamic State, competitors must thus be killed because they increasingly threaten the legitimacy of the Islamic State and its Khilafah, while the competition also favours an extreme perception of Shi’ites, as we shall now see more in detail.

The perceived perpetrator: Iran and all the Shi’ites

The second article of Dabiq 13, “From the pages of history: the Safawiyyah”, presents the Islamic State’s version of history regarding the Safavid Dynasty, Persia. Its aim is to revile as much as possible this dynasty, thus Iran seen as its chief heir, and further to equate current “Rafidah” with what they try to show as a Safavid “evil essence and design”:

“Today’s Rāfidah are undoubtedly a continuation of this cult as they practice the same Rafd**, implement the same policies towards Ahlus-Sunnah**, and propagate the same Persianism….

It is important to make the connection that this wicked legacy – regarding Ahlus-Sunnah as their central adversary, not the Jews, crusaders, or apostates – is up-held by the Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese and other Rāfidah of our time as their religion in addition to the worship of the dead and other forms of kufr** and shirk**.
Just as the Roman Empire never fully fell, but merely adopted new names, the Safawiyyah thrive – based in Iran – with their Rāfidī aim of eradicating Ahlus-Sunnah and replacing them with a population of apostasy.” (Dabiq 13, p.10, part of the opening paragraph, and p.12, two concluding paragraphs).

We thus see here at work the classical if worrying start of a victimisation of self at the hands of a group designed and constructed as the other, and progressively the “evil enemy”, an other that would want to “eradicate” the group to which one belongs. The strength of the word used – “eradicate” –  is particularly important as it indicates a very high level of escalation in the belief-based spiral into which the Islamic State lives and certainly bathes its followers. We recognise here a fundamental element of a society being prey to genocidal dynamics (Helene Lavoix, Nationalism’ and ‘genocide, 2005).

Islamic State, Sectarianism, Sunni-Shia, Shi'a, Shi'ite, War, Dabiq
Adverstising picture for Dabiq 13, Al-Hayat Media Center, 19 January 2016.

The last article in Dabiq takes a similar approach to revile all Shi’ites, accusing them of all possible sins and evils. Meanwhile, as in the article “Kill the Imams of Kufr”, the Islamic State tries to emphasise that it is more faithful to Islam than “the Jihad claimants” – meaning Al-Qaeda, the Talibans and actually all others that could compete against them – because these “claimants” are too lenient against Shi’ites, refusing to kill non-fighters, people, and even treating with “Rafidah powers”. Through their will to show themselves as truer to the faith, they emphasise not only a right to kill all Shi’ites, but also a duty to do so. In the meantime, the genocidal vocabulary of “cleansing”, already used by al-Zarqawi (see p.42) starts being used:

“It is best that one contrasts this deviance of Dhawāhirī and the nationalist Taliban with Shaykh az-Zarqāwī’s plan to cleanse Iraq of the Rāfidah.”

This confirms what we saw previously with the article against the Safavid Dynasty and it is thus highly likely that the Islamic State has entered a genocidal state, the selected out-group for destruction being the Shi’ites.

Iraqi Army, Islamic State, Sectarianism, Sunni-Shia, Shi'a, Shi'ite, War, Dabiq
Picture displaying the Iraqi Army with anti-Shi’ite comment – Dabiq 13, Al-Hayat Media Center, 19 January 2016, p. 19

The involvement of Shi’ites on the Mesopotamian battlefield may only contribute to generate then reinforce this paranoid perception. In Iraq, Shi’ites represent between 19 and 22 million people, i.e. 65% to 70% of the population (Pew Research Center, 2009); the government is Shi’ite-led and its handling of sectarian issues has been questioned (e.g. CFR, “The Sunni-Sh’ia Divide”, ibid; Michael Gordon, “2 Sunni Leaders Denounce Lack of Role in Iraqi Government“, 11 May 2015, The New York Times); Sh’ites represente a large majority in the National Army (CFR, “The Sunni-Sh’ia Divide”, ibid) – a nationalism the Islamic State of course condemns (e.g. for Dabiq 13, pp. 7-8)  and is supported at times by Iranian fighters, as during the battle of Tikrit (e.g. Nafiseh Kohnavard, “Tikrit: Iran key in fight to wrest city from IS“, BBC News, 3 March 2015). In Syria, we similarly have a Shi’ite support (Hezbollah and Iran) to the Alawite – a Shi’ite branch – government of Bashar al-Assad (CFR, “The Sunni-Sh’ia Divide”, ibid; “Pro-Assad regime groups“, RTAS, 24 February 2014).

Thus, with each battle fought and especially won by governmental opponents to the Islamic State, the paranoid perception of a “Rafidi” plot aiming to destroy the Sunnis is reinforced, as the Islamic State with its Khilafah perceive themselves as representing all Sunnis.

However difficult as war is ongoing and highly sensitive considering potential global sectarian implications, as we shall see below, care would need to be taken to protect the civilian populations at risk – which, in the case of genocidal dynamics tend to grow indefinitely as the paranoid perception rises (Heder, “Reassessing the Role of Senior Leaders and Local Officials in Democratic Kampuchea Crimes”, 2005 – for a summary H. Lavoix, “Scholarly Review: Cambodia“, Online Encyclopaedia of Mass Violence, 2007). This is all the more important that harm to Shi’ites communities could then trigger much stronger responses than those taking place actually not only from Iran, but also from other Shi’ites populations such as the 17-26 million living in Pakistan and 16-24 million living in India. It would then be particularly difficult to make sure that the most religiously committed of the Sunni world would not also enter a most lethal ideological spiral, leading to retaliation and acute full-blown war. We thus have here a potential for severe conflagration.

Considering the entangling of the escalating narratives among Salafis actors, we should also pay attention and monitor closely all sectarian discourses and actions as there is currently a potential to see the latter intensifying. We already have indications of this phenomenon at work between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as pointed out above. The danger would rise if the actors involved were feeling threatened in their rule or survival, even for other unrelated causes, such as oil prices.

The war against the Islamic State must consider these ideological components because of the potential for severe impacts they hold.



* i.e. al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaeda.

Rafd: the religion of the Rāfidah (Dabiq 13, p.10).
Ahlus-Sunnah: ahl as-sunnah the community/followers of the Sunnah, i.e. Sunnis.
Kufr: Disbelief (Oxford Dictionary of Islam); Unbelief (Wikipedia)
Shirk: Idolatry (wikipedia)

Featured image: Still from a video by The Islamic State –  Wilāyat Nīnawā, 23 Dec 2015.

About the author: Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.


Gallarotti G., Al-Filali I.Y., “Saudi Arabia’s soft power” (2012),  International Studies,  49 , pp. 233-261.

Blanchard, Christopher M. “The Islamic Traditions of Wahhabism and Salafiyya”, Congressional Research Service, RS21695,January 24, 2008. 

CFR, “The Sunni-Shi’a Divide“, Council of Foreign Relations, A CFR InfoGuide Presentation, August 2015.

Heder, Steve, 2005, “Reassessing the Role of Senior Leaders and Local Officials in Democratic Kampuchea Crimes: Cambodian Accountability in Comparative Perspective,” in Bringing the Khmer Rouge to justice: prosecuting mass violence before the Cambodian courts, ed. by Jaya Ramji and Beth van Schaack, (Lewiston, N.Y. : E. Mellen Press).

Lavoix, Helene, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘genocide’ : the construction of nation-ness, authority, and opposition – the case of Cambodia (1861-1979) – PhD Thesis – School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), 2005.

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